Nina Otero

Born: 1881 - Died: 1-3-1965

By Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Ph.D.

Adelina (Nina) Otero Warren—suffragist, educator, politician, entrepreneur, and writer-- was born in 1881 in La Constancia, New Mexico, near Los Lunas.  She was the second child of Manuel B. Otero and Eloisa Luna Otero.  Both her parents had deep roots in New Mexico, with her mother’s family claiming descent from some of the earliest colonizers of New Mexico and her father’s family dating back to Spanish pioneers of the eighteenth century.  The Lunas and Oteros still controlled large land holdings and influenced culture and politics at the time of Nina’s birth.  During her childhood Nina enjoyed the benefits of a wealthy and influential family.

Her family experienced the tragedy of her father’s untimely death when Nina was just four months short of her second birthday.  He was killed in a land dispute at the age of 23.  At the time of Manuel B. Otero’s death, Nina’s mother was pregnant with her third child.  Nina and her two young brothers would grow up without their father, but the extended Luna and Otero clans oversaw the well-being of the small family.   After a mourning period, the young Eloisa met and eventually married Alfred Maurice Bergere in 1886.  Bergere was an Englishman of Italian descent who had immigrated to the U.S. at age sixteen.  Eloisa and Bergere would go on to have nine more children, creating a houseful of four boys and eight girls. 

The Bergeres educated their children, including eldest daughter Nina.  She studied at St. Vincent’s Academy in Albuquerque until the age of eleven, when she was sent to Maryville College of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, Missouri.  Nina returned home at age thirteen, after spending two years improving her language skills and learning lessons about the family and community duties of women current at that time.  Once home, she shared her lessons with her younger brothers and sisters and took advantage of her position as an older sibling in order to instruct their behavior.  She would continue this role through to the end of her life, with her younger siblings and nieces and nephews always looking up to her for advice.  She also took great pride in living on a working rancho and spent many hours on horseback, observing the many activities of ranch life and cultivating her independent spirit.  She would later describe ranch duties and traditions in her book Old Spain in Our Southwest.

When Nina was sixteen, the Bergere clan moved to Santa Fe.  Eloisa’s cousin Miguel Antonio Otero II had been appointed territorial governor, and he convinced Alfred Bergere to take an appointment as a judicial clerk.  The move to Santa Fe also gave the older children, including Nina, closer access to the vibrant society and culture at the capital.  She soon became a regular guest at many of the social gatherings in the region, distinguishing herself as attractive, intelligent, witty, vibrant, and respectable.  Yet, even with all her charms and wide network of friends and acquaintances, she did not meet her husband until 1907 when she was 26.  The young man was Rawson D. Warren, a first lieutenant and the commanding officer of the Fifth U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort Wingate.  He was 35 years old, and his intelligence and steadiness appealed to Nina.  They were married at Santa Fe on June 25, 1908, and she then accompanied him to Fort Wingate, near Gallup, New Mexico.  However, they did not prove to be a good match, and Nina left Warren after two years of struggling under the strictures of army life and conventional marriage.

Once she left her marriage, Nina returned to Santa Fe to begin a new and independent period of her life.  She described herself as a widow and threw herself into local political and social life once again.  She started as an observer, as women could not vote, but she soon developed an interest in changing things.  However, her early involvement in suffragist politics was interrupted by the illness and eventual death of her mother.  After her mother died of heart failure in 1914, her stepfather Alfred Bergere relied on the eldest daughter of the clan to help look after the house and her many younger siblings, the youngest being eight-year-old Joe.  With her sister Anita, Nina helped Alfred with the children and the house, although her primary interests lay in politics.  Nina proved a good role model for her younger siblings, demonstrating independence even in an era when women could not vote.  Her family history and connections made her central to the suffragist movement in New Mexico, not to mention her personal passion for the cause.  The woman’s vote was finally approved in 1920 due to the hard work of Nina and many other women like her in New Mexico.  Not one to sit back and enjoy a victory, she immediately launched a campaign to be the Republican Party nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives.  She ran a historic campaign, winning the nomination but losing the race for the seat by less than nine percent, and the experience established her as a leader committed to the welfare of her fellow New Mexicans. 

Her notoriety as a suffragist and the respect she gained from her run for U.S. Congress led to her twelve-year tenure as Superintendent of Public Schools in Santa Fe County.  She took this next period of her professional life very seriously and worked hard to improve the schools by recruiting better teachers, closely monitoring school maintenance, and increasing teacher salaries.  However, her most significant contribution during this era involved her negotiation of the American impact on what she identified as the Spanish culture.  She realized that pressure from the federal government required the schools to Americanize—to assimilate to American culture and values—yet she also realized that local Spanish culture offered a deep history and rich culture in the region.  During her time as superintendent, she set about trying to strike a balance between curricular requirements on the one hand and Spanish cultural values on the other.  She gained a great deal of respect from parents, teachers, and pupils for her efforts on this front.

Always an educator, Nina wanted to offer the public a permanent record of the Spanish culture in New Mexico that she saw vanishing all too quickly.  Encouraged by her acquaintance Mary Hunter Austin, she wrote a book titled Old Spain in Our Southwest in 1936 as a sourcebook for young adults, and she also offered a critique of assimilation within its pages.  Her criticism of imperialism is of course not without its ironies, given the history of Spanish colonization of American Indian lands.  However, her writings still offer a window on the ways that Mexican Americans attempted to balance the influence of American culture with the traditions that prevailed in New Mexico during the Spanish and Mexican periods.

Nina’s later life found her homesteading a ranch she called "Las Dos" with her friend and companion Mamie Meadors.  She and Meadors also ran a real estate agency together, and she remained a visible part of Santa Fe politics and society.  For her family, she remained an advisor and matriarch.  Although she never remarried or had children of her own, her younger siblings and nieces and nephews sought her out and received her help and advice.  They also often visited Las Dos for family reunions, including her sister Estella Bergere Leopold and her “favorite brother-in-law,” the conservationist Aldo Leopold, and their children.  She died on January 3, 1965.

Sources:

Otero, Nina. Old Spain in Our Southwest. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1936.

Whaley, Charlotte T. Nina Otero Warren of Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.